• Gretl Claggett
  • Looking Back: The Role of Musing in Memoir ... by Janice Gary
Looking Back: The Role of Musing in Memoir ... by Janice Gary
Written by
Gretl Claggett
March 2012
Written by
Gretl Claggett
March 2012

Writers have always talked about the role of the “Muse.” I love Janice’s insights about the role of “musing” in memoir …


Memoir is based on memory, and memory, as we all know, is slippery, subjective and colored through the lens of time and experience. When we write memoir, we don’t rely on transcripts or recorded archives (although that can be part of the tools of our craft). We are re-creating, sorting through the layers of remembering to re-member our lives, to put form and shape to our experience through language.


By borrowing from the techniques of fiction and poetry, we are able to make the events of our past come alive, creating detailed pictures of time and place and portraits of the people who have come and gone in our lives. We use scene and dialogue, challenging ourselves to recall how someone talked, what they said (or more accurately, what we remember that they said) and how we felt when moving among the people and events of our past.


This can all make for vivid prose. But details and memory alone do not make a memoir. The job of the memoirist is to take the reader on a journey of discovery, to dig beneath the events of a life to find the deeper story within. And, fortunately, the memoirist has a secret weapon to help her in this task: musing.


Musing is the part of the writing where the writer looks back on the events of their life and reflects on them from the perspective of who they are now. It is the place of knowing and not-knowing, where the writer asks questions of themselves, struggles to understand what has happened, fills in some of the blanks or provides the bigger picture.


Often, musing provides an overlay of honesty and insight that opens the door to the real story. In her memoir, Once Upon A Secret, detailing an affair with President Kennedy when she was a nineteen-year-old intern in the White House, Mimi Alford writes that she continued seeing Kennedy for a few months after the sexual relationship had ended.


“It was proof that I wasn’t just a plaything to him, that he enjoyed my company. . . as a friend,” she writes. But then she adds: “Perhaps I’m flattering myself.”


I don’t have much interest in “kiss and tell” celebrity memoirs. And I have to admit that I have not read Ms. Alford’s book. But a review in the Washington Post included the above quote from the book and the one sentence that captured my attention.


“Perhaps I’m flattering myself,” are the words of a writer looking back at her young self and considering that she may have been deluding herself in order to salvage her self-respect. To me, this is far more interesting than the “shocking” revelation of soaking in a bathtub with the President or frolicking in his bed. How does a woman feel after being used by such a powerful and older man? How does she reconcile with it after so many years? How does she keep silent for so long?


This one little line, this “Perhaps …” opens the door to the kind of story really worth hearing—the story of a young woman who lost herself and her self-respect in the name of love.


As Sue William Silverman, author of Fearless Confessions, says, writing memoir is “not simply to say, ‘this happened to me and then this happened to me, then this next thing happened to me.’ ‘What happened’ is part of it. But it is much more interesting to discover the story behind the story—what you could never have known then.”


There is much we do not know for sure. Musing provides room for the writer to muddle around in the “maybes” and “what ifs” and “if onlys” in her life. This task of sorting through the past to discover and uncover the truth is what makes memoir not only a rich and satisfying experience for the reader, but an illuminating journey for the writer.


As you look back over the events of your life, give yourself permission to think out loud on the page. Allow yourself to muse, considering what you don’t know as well as what you know. You may find that in reflecting on the “maybes” and “perhapses,” you will not only gain insight for yourself, you will unlock the story you have been looking for all along.




Janice Gary teaches memoir and creative writing in Annapolis, Maryland. Her book, Short Leash: A Memoir of Dogwalking and Deliverance is forthcoming from Michigan State University Press. www.janicegary.com



Let's be friends

The Women Behind She Writes

326 articles
12 articles

Featured Members (8)

12 articles
39 articles
107 articles
373 articles

Featured Groups (7)

Trending Articles

  • Why Aren't You Writing?
  • Understanding Book Influencer Tiers
  • Stephanie Garber on Creating Settings, Writing Fantasy...
  • An Exclusive Interview with Devi S. Laskar
  • Easy SEO Tips for Authors
  • Publishing Dreams

  • Jayne Martin

    Excellent piece.  Thank you for posting it.  

  • Joanne S Frye

    I'd like to second all of the previous comments: a wonderful claim on what I, too, see as the distinctive quality of memoir.  In writing her own late memoir, "A Sketch of the Past," Virginia Woolf talks about the value of including the present as a "platform to stand upon"--invoking the reflective self that gives additional resonance to her short memoir.  In writing my own memoir--"Biting the Moon: A Memoir of Feminism and Motherhood" (Syracuse University Press, 2012)--I found this questioning, musing quality to be essential, as I explicitly claimed the platform of the present to explore and come to terms with complicated past experience.  Thanks for sharing this terrific essay.

  • Joan Aghevli

    Thank you Gretl for sharing Janice Gary's article on musing as a tool for memoirs. I have recently published a memoir, co-authored with Parvaneh Bahar, called The Poet's Daughter (Larson Publications). Parvaneh is the daughter of the greatest persian poet in Iran for hundreds of years - some say a thousand, the greatest since Ferdows - Malek o'Shoara Bahar. Parvaneh had written a small memoir published in Iran, and together we used that as a base and I wrote a much longer book that also looked at history, social customs etc, as well as translating 24 of her father's poems. One of the best tools I used to extend the story was to interview Parvaneh, after we had roughly translated a section of her memoir and I had written it up. Musing on what I had written (which in and of itself is an interesting experience, to read what someone else has seen as your life) and trying to answer the questions I was asking, led to a very deep reservoir of memory being brought back to the surface. We are old friends - 35 years of strong friendship - and I was able to use my knowledge of her to elicit much more than she had recalled by herself. It was a fascinating process. I recall asking her, "Why did your father, so educated, such a supporter of women's equality, allow you to be married off at barely 16 years of age?"  In answering that question, a veritable avalanche of memories - of persecution, exile, several imprisonments of her father for political reasons, ostracism, hunger and terrible financial insecurity for her family of 5 children - came rushing out. The resulting book is considerably more profound that the original, and offers more life lessons. Also, my musing on what I had written allowed me to see common threads, themes and directions that may not have been apparent to the one who had lived the life.

  • Fran Pokras Yariv

    This is so true.  I am writing a memoir of growing up in the 50's and find that from my current perspective I am seeing events in a whole new light.  This is like therapy and I am learning so much about who and what I am.

  • Atta Arghandiwal

    Thanks for the refreshing and true post.  After sharing amazing stories of Afghanistan's last forty years with many I finally wrote my memoir through which I hope to share the Untold true stories that many would enjoy reading. But completely agree with your writing and reference to writing a memoir. Very much appreciate it.

    I have therefore given my memoir a sub-title of "The Untold Afghan Story"


    Atta Arghandiwal

  • Grace Peterson

    Great post and a great reply from Heather. I agree. Reading a bunch of facts is boring at best but the chance to get inside the writer's head and understand the meanings behind the events is what makes memoir so fascinating to read and so healing to write.

    Congrats on the publication of your memoir, Janice.  

  • Heather Marsten

    This is so true. The more I write my story, the more I'm unearthing facts I never realized and seeing connections that blow my mind. Because my story is told in first person, at a young age I don't even know the terms or the situations behind my story. The musing comes in when I get to the part where I sit in guidance counselor and therapist's offices and begin to sort out the pain and hurt. Even that is incomplete.  I don't know if this is true to others, but my revelation about the past came about in layers - each layer bringing a new revelation.  This is a great post.